Parshat Shlach: We are All Converts!

Rabbi Joel Zeff

The Vilna Gaon was the Mentor of Count Valentine Potocki, the Righteous Convert

The yahrtzeit of Count Valentine Potocki was recently observed. Now I am sure that very few readers will recognize this name and may wonder why we would observe the anniversary of the death of a Polish count.

Count Valentine Potocki was born into an aristocratic Polish Catholic family in the year 1700. As a young man he became interested in Judaism and contemplated conversion, a capital offense in most countries of Christian Europe of the time. Valentine travelled to Amsterdam, one of the few places allowing for conversion to Judaism, and formally embraced his new-found faith and people. Years later Count Valentine moved to the area of Vilna and was befriended by the greatest rabbinical authority of the time, Rabbi Eliyahu, known as the Vilna Gaon, who recognized the spiritual majesty of this Jew by choice.

Valentine was subsequently arrested for the “crime” of becoming a Jew. The court gave him the option of renouncing Judaism or execution. Steadfastly refusing to betray his faith and his people, Count Valentine Potocki was burned at the stake in Vilna on the second day of the holiday of Shavuot, 1749. According to tradition, some of his ashes were retrieved and were ultimately interred in the same grave as the Vilna Gaon. Born as Valentine Potocki, this heroic soul died as Abraham the son Abraham and is known for posterity as the Ger Tzedek, the Righteous Convert, of Vilna.

This week’s Torah portion provides the framework for conversion, “One rule applies to the congregation and for the convert who resides with you; one rule applies, throughout your generations; just as for you, so it is for the convert, before the Lord.” At first glance this verse seems to say the same thing three times: the insistence that the convert and the born Jew be treated by the same standard.  The Talmud asserts that there are no gratuitous duplications in the Torah.  The phrase “just as for you, so it is for the convert” is explained to refer to the actual procedural requirements for conversion and could be paraphrased as, “Just as you became Jewish, so too, Jews by choice will become Jewish.” The Talmud then analyzes the great event of the Revelation of Torah at Mount Sinai, which we just celebrated a few weeks ago during the holiday of Shavuot. The Talmud concludes that just as we underwent circumcision, ritual immersion, and brought certain offerings, in order to become Jewish, so too, future converts will need to undergo the same. (The offerings will be brought when the Holy Temple in Jerusalem is rebuilt.)

According to this, we are all converts! The Children of Israel who left Egypt were not formally “Jewish” until they converted at the foot of Mount Sinai. The only difference between me and a contemporary convert is when the conversion took place; mine was 3,325 years ago while my neighbor in shul converted more recently.

In light of this we can bring a more nuanced meaning to the mitzvah, found several times in the Torah, entreating us to love the convert, “The convert who lives with you shall be as a native from among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” The Hebrew word for “convert” and “stranger” are the same, (ger.) The Torah explains why we are commanded to love the convert, for we were once “strangers” in Egypt. The Children of Israel experienced the sense of alienation and insecurity associated with not being a “native” and therefore should be uniquely equipped to have profound empathy for the convert in our midst.  In light of the Talmud’s explanation that we are all converts, who converted as part of the process of the Exodus from Egypt and culminating at Sinai, we can add that “for you were strangers” might also mean “for you were also converts.” We were both strangers and converts and must, therefore, treat the more recent converts with the utmost love and honor.

There is a powerful symbolism associated with the martyrdom of Count Valentine Potocki-Abraham son of Abraham, occurring on the holiday of Shavuot, the day we became Israel in the fullness sense at the foot of Sinai. This week’s Torah reading, “just as for you, so it is for the convert,” serves to remind us that those precious individuals who have chosen to join their fate with the Jewish people have been, and continue to be, among the most remarkable and inspiring members of the nation chosen to bear witness to the everlasting relevance of the message of Sinai.


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